3 things big media can do to save independent journalism

This is adapted from Rebecca MacKinnon's 2012 Hearst New Media Lecture, given at Columbia's J-school on April 19

By advocating Internet access that is open, interconnected, and neutral—which is not what’s happening now—Rebecca MacKinnon argues that big media companies will be helping preserve conditions where a diverse media contingent can thrive. Specific points:

1. As app-based dissemination and social media supplant the Web, what’s good for the big media companies is not necessarily good for free speech and independent journalism.

The problem with apps is that they give the companies that run the platforms that deliver content to their devices an opportunity to censor and discriminate against certain content—not only when governments require it, but also for business reasons, or for no clear reason. …

News and media companies that do care about the future of journalism and democracy must not turn a blind eye to Apple’s arbitrary censorship. The point is not that they should avoid Apple apps and their relationships with Apple. The point is that since the law and the constitution are apparently useless against private censorship and discrimination, the only way to get Apple to operate in a democracy-compatible manner is if Apple’s customers, business partners, and investors insist on it.

It is time for the news business to remove the scales from their eyes and move on from their blind love affair with the iPad to a realistic partnership in which news companies insist that Apple manage its content platform in a manner that is compatible not only with big-media journalism but all kinds of journalism—including the types of entrepreneurial, independent, and edgy journalism that schools like this one are encouraging graduates to engage in. For this reason it is also important that news companies not put all their eggs in the Apple basket.

News organizations should give equal priority to developing apps for other tablet computers and smartphones running on other kinds of mobile devices rather than focusing their flagship efforts primarily around Apple products.

2. As media companies enter into partnerships with Facebook, they encourage or require readers of their websites to log in via Facebook to comment on stories. Facebook’s terms of service, meanwhile, require account holders to use their real names. This is good for the media companies, who rightly want to cultivate civil “communities” of commenters, but it can also inhibit controversial speech and enable censorship.

A certain percentage of people out there will not participate in the online discussion of a news story—or share new information and personal observations that might even help to advance the story—if they can only easily do so under their real name. There are many reasons, including fear that their prospects for promotion or employment—or relations with family members—will be damaged if their name is linked directly to certain political views, or even recreational proclivities, or sexual preferences….

Independent and freelance journalists around the world rely heavily on social media—and particularly Facebook—to promote their work, and build an audience for their stories that may appear across a range of different news outlets. In many countries, it is common for journalists to write under pen names—names that develop a distinctive voice, reputation and even credibility—in order to protect their families or for other cultural reasons.

Facebook’s real-name policy means that their enemies and critics can report them for terms of service abuse and get their accounts deactivated. In some countries journalists use Facebook to reach their audiences even though it is dangerous to comply with the real name requirement.

3. Narrow self interest has led Big Media to support laws and regulatory—from SOPA to Net Neutrality—that are detrimental to the development of independent journalism and free expression.

The drafters of SOPA and Protect IP did not set out to constrain online dissent and activism, independent investigative journalism, or opposition media. Their goal was to protect intellectual property; specifically to stop IP infringement carried out or facilitated by overseas websites—which is obviously a huge concern to the media companies that own movie studios and music labels as well as news organizations.

Small online news organizations and independent journalists around the world also hope to earn a living from the sale of their own intellectual property. Most would agree that some intellectual property law and enforcement mechanisms are necessary. But if one is not part of a major big brand American or European media company, the threats posed by SOPA vastly outweighed the potential upside.

This is in no small part because the legal and technical solutions proposed in these bills are—at a practical and technical level—very similar to mechanisms used by authoritarian regimes in forcing the private sector to censor and monitor Internet users, which of course include news organizations and investigative journalists seeking to expose corporate and government malfeasance.

Read or watch MacKinnon’s entire speech here.

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The Editors are the staffers of Columbia Journalism Review. Tags: , , ,